NEW YORK – Sen. Charles E. Schumer will be Senate minority leader, not majority leader, thanks to Senate elections across the country on Tuesday.
Schumer stood the chance of being majority leader if the Democrats had picked up five Senate seats, or four if Democrat Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, given that Clinton's vice president – current Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. – would have broken ties in a 50-50 Senate.
But the returns did not bode well for Schumer or the Democrats, as all but one of their prime Senate pickup opportunities fell through. In Indiana, Democrat Evan Bayh – recruited to run for his old seat by Schumer – lost to Republican Rep. Todd Young.
In North Carolina, Democrat Deborah Ross lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
In Pennsylvania, Democrat Katie McGinty fell to incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
In Missouri, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt held off a strong challenge from Democrat Jason Kander.
And in Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson unexpectedly defeated Democrat Russ Feingold.
Democrats picked up a Senate seat in Illinois, as Rep. Tammy Duckworth beat incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Kirk, and as of 3:30 a.m., still stood a chance of picking up a seat in New Hampshire.
But one more Democratic seat would do nothing to make Schumer majority leader.
There's a huge difference in being majority leader or minority leader. The majority leader sets the Senate agenda, while the minority leader reacts to it – either blocking major items or negotiating with the majority to strike a compromise.
Striking compromises is just what Schumer hopes to do whether he wins the top spot or not.
"I don't want to just put bills on the floor that our party votes for and the other party votes against," Schumer said in an interview. "We've got to figure out ways to compromise, and that's where I'm going to put my energy, whether I'm majority leader or minority leader."
Doing so won't necessarily be easy. Some of the most prominent and liberal members of the Democratic Senate caucus – such as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – are not known as deal-makers. Republican senators are similarly divided between traditional conservatives such as the current majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and tea party figures such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
But Schumer hopes to keep intra-party conflict to a minimum while working across party lines.
"In either case in the Senate, you have to work in a bipartisan manner," Schumer said. "I have told my colleagues that we have a moral obligation to get things done, that if government is paralyzed for another four years, the anger and sourness in the land will be awful."
Schumer listed several issues that he hopes to pursue, particularly if he were to become majority leader: a major infrastructure bill, immigration reform, a higher minimum wage and college affordability.
Those proposals track those of Clinton, who worked side by side with Schumer as a senator from New York.
Senate Democrats agreed last year to make Schumer majority leader upon the retirement of the current top Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
Schumer has long served as chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, making him the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
In winning the top leadership job, Schumer leapfrogged the current number two Democrat, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who serves as the party whip. Senate sources said Schumer's colleagues found him to be the kind of aggressive strategist and deal-maker that they wanted in the top job.
A former state assemblyman and House member from Brooklyn, Schumer, now 65, joined the Senate in 1999 after defeating three-term Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a Republican.
He quickly joined the leadership ranks, chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee a decade ago. Several current senators won their seats in part with guidance from Schumer back then and ever since, a fact that made them deeply loyal to the New Yorker.
2016 election results:
- Clinton wins Erie County despite Trump appeal to Democrats 'left behind'
- Republicans likely to keep control of New York State Senate
- Democrat Flynn takes DA title in convincing style
- Jacobs wins 60th District State Senate seat
- GOP incumbent Reed turns aside challenge in 23rd Congressional District
- Incumbent Assemblyman Raymond Walter clings to slim lead
- Higgins, Collins cruise to re-election victories
- Morinello upsets Ceretto; Wallace defeats Sugg